photos by Kristie Gripp
SALT LAKE CITY — Any week that begins and ends with the Old 97’s can’t be all that bad.
And that’s exactly what Utah has this week!
On Sunday, the Dallas-based Old 97’s performed at the Blues, Brews and BBQ Fest at Snowbasin. They’ve spent the past week running around the west, including a stop at the Braun Brothers Reunion in Challis, Idaho. On Friday, Rhett Miller and company return to the Urban Lounge in Salt Lake City.
The Deseret News caught up with the humble and charismatic frontman during the band’s lone day off in Casper, Wyoming. Rhett talked on a wide variety of topics including how the great single “Good With God” off their most recent release, Graveyard Whistling, actually originated in Salt Lake City; the challenge of writing an album sober; his work to help LGBT and suicidal teens; and how he was almost Jerry Jones’ son.
How was Snowbasin?
It was so beautiful. There’s something funny they do with these ski resort gigs, and we’ve done quite a few of them over the years, where they’ll put the stage up over by the parking lot and the audience will be going up the foot of the mountain. So the audience will be looking at the stage with whatever behind it, usually there are some distant mountains or something. But the band gets to look right up the mountain and it’s one of the coolest things to be on stage applying my trade and I’m looking at this big, happy crowd of people and then beyond them, one of the most majestic sites you can imagine. It’s pretty cool. I like my job.
When you began the writing process for what would become Graveyard Whistling, did you have any overall theme that you focused on?
I never think about a writing process because I tend to constantly be writing. Coming out of Most Messed Up, which was like a very wheels-off record, where as a writer I sort of gave myself permission to go there….and so that record was fun. But it was a little bit taxing. It was almost like it was an exhausting record to make and to tour behind. And I noticed as the songs were coming together for this record that, if there was a theme, the theme kind of had something to do with the aftermath of something traumatic, you know? And so now, making this record was really cool. And in a way, that contributed to the very strange experience of going back to the same studio where 20 years earlier we had recorded our Elektra debut, Too Far to Care, and how that record has always stayed very important to us in terms of being a fan favorite and being a band favorite, and that we were going back to that same exact room and staying in the same bedrooms. And suddenly these songs that felt like they chronicled the aftermath of something traumatic, they sort of were able to apply to looking back on 20 years of being in a rock band, 25 years of having done this job. And it was cool. We’re not the kind of band that does a lot of navel-gazing or pontificating about mortality or that kind of stuff. But I did definitely feel a little bit more like introspective when I was writing these songs and working these songs up for the album.
You were influenced a lot by David Bowie growing up. Did his death have an impact on the songwriting for the new record?
Wow. I hadn’t even thought about that. (Pause). Yeah, it did impact me personally a lot. And it did make me go back and think about Bowie because his music has meant so much to me over the years and I feel like I carry it around. It’s something that I’ve internalized so long ago that I don’t examine it very often. And so when he died, I wrote a piece for Salon. They had asked me to write about him. And I said, well it’s just going to kinda be about me because I can’t say anything about Bowie that hasn’t been said by people who are better qualified to say it. So, I kind of ended up writing something about my own experience as fan and acolyte of Bowie. And so, in the wake of his death I definitely did go back and listen to his stuff. I played it for my kids. I kind of got obsessed with trying seeing if I could find his old 12-string guitar like the Framus he used to play which, short answer, they’re not really out there. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find one.
Yeah, I thought a lot about it. But I don’t know to what extent that affected my song writing. I just don’t know how much more he could have affected my song writing, you know? He’s not typically lauded for like, the heartfelt quality of his songs. People tend to think of more the image. And if not the image, it seems to be about the sound and how experimental he was sonically. But I found a lot as a searching teenager, and then as I’ve grown up with it, I’ve felt like I connected a lot with the heartfelt themes that he would hide in his music. And I think I learned from that, that if you’re going to put something in that is potentially maudlin or that makes you feel vulnerable, maybe it’s best if you hide it a little bit so people don’t find it until the 10th or the 20th or the 100th listen. Just because if you’re hitting people in the face with it, that’s no fun for anybody.
You’ve talked about becoming sober during the past couple years. Did that have an impact on the new album, both in terms of subject material and the writing process in general?
It’s not something I’ve talked much about, but it’s been two-and-a-half years since I chose to become sober and I feel really good about it. It had a lot to do with my kids and the age that they’re at, really wanting to be present for them. And just as a personal choice to try and be healthy and feel good. And it’s been great. But it did sort of drive the point home how important it had been in my writing process. I talked then to a lot of people, some of whom are just really amazing writers and artists who’ve all gone through this and they’ve all had this experience of having to re-learn how to do it when you don’t have the crutch of booze or weed or whatever. For me, and I think for a lot of people who have gone through this, it’s about the voices in your head, because that’s something that all artists, and maybe everyone, but certainly creative types deal with is that you’ve always got these voices in your head and usually they’re telling you that you suck and that you should give it up and that nobody wants to hear what you’ve got to say. And it can be a hard thing to overcome. And I think that’s why a lot of people in my line of work turn to self-medication because it’s a way to silence those voices or dull them. And so, it was a little bit hard coming back to song writing.
One trick that I was able to use, and this is a thing I really love about music, that drew me into music as a life path to begin with, was that there’s other people. You can collaborate with them. And I was able to lean on friends and I did a lot of co-writing on this record, which is something I hadn’t done a ton of before. But I wrote I handful of songs with my friend Salim Nourallah who has produced a lot of records for us. Some of my favorite songs on the record are the songs he and I wrote together. And I kind have been learning new ways to do what I do. And it’s fun. It’s like here’s this thing that you love, and you thoguht you had to be slightly unconscious to do it, and then you find out you’re able to be fully conscious when you do it and you’re like, ‘Wow. This is even more fun when I’m aware of it as it’s happening.’
Talk about the decision to write God as a female character in “Good with God.” Were you worried about how some people might react to that? Or was it just a way to get Brandi Carlile on the record?
(Laughs) That song originated in Salt Lake City, of all places. It was the last stop on that run. We had been out with Nikki Lane, who is herself just a larger than life force of nature. I was sick of being on the bus and I went into the dressing room of the club and I just had this idea of this guy who thought that he was above reproach or that he was above having to pay for his sins. And as I got to the chorus, it occurred to me that the sins he had committed were, it seemed like, all against women. And then all of a sudden he realizes that the god who would be judging him is a female god. And suddenly his assuredness that he is beyond reproach is questioned. So when I got to that – Nikki Lane, of course, is mad at me because I didn’t get her to finish it with me when she was right there – so I got to that, and I kind of had to live with that for a couple of weeks, like ‘What am I going to do?’ I really loved the song, but I didn’t feel comfortable putting words into the mouth not only of a female character, but of the ultimate female character. And so I thought about who I thought would embody that in terms of voice, the actual physical voice and the voice as a writer. And I thought of Brandi. I thought of seeing her sing some blues at this Johnny Cash tribute that she and I performed at together. And she just seemed like the perfect choice. And when I asked her, I didn’t even realize she has a very strong spiritual life of her own, and that she’s, in her own way, a really religious person. And it was kind of a cool thing to find that out. Cause’ I’m not super religious. I definitely believe in karma. I definitely believe in the Sermon on the Mount and do unto others. But it was kind of sweet. It was definitely a feeling of fate or kismet or something when I realized, ‘Oh! She’s like the ultimately qualified person to help me write this song and then sing it.’ It worked out really well. And yeah, it worked out really well. I’m really proud of that song.
I saw you perform on back-to-back nights last month in Illinois, in Peoria with the full band, and the next night solo in Chicago. How has it been balancing the solo vs full band shows?
I’ve been doing it for so long now it really feels natural. I’m right now, sort writing for and brainstorming about the next solo record. It’s good outlet. My guys are so ornery and opinionated and everybody has veto power in our band. And I think that it works to the benefit of the band because it truly makes it a democratic thing where I don’t think we’re falling into the lowest common denominator problem that a lot of bands that have multiple members who all get to vote have. I do think that we wind up coming up with something that’s greater than the sum of our parts in the band. But I, as a songwriter, and I guess as an artist – as pretentious as that sounds – I find that I have a lot of impulses that I don’t have an outlet for. And so, if I didn’t get to make these solo records, I would begrudge these guys a great deal for their orneriness. But as it is, if I ever get told ‘No,’ or voted down or shouted down, I know that I’ve got an outlet where nobody gets to vote me down but myself. And so that’s great. And also I just love to go do these solo shows because it’s just me up on stage. I can tell stories, I can play any song from any part of my career, I can do whatever I want. And it does kind of make me miss the guys where I’ll turn around after a long run of playing solo gigs, and I’ll long to be back on stage collecting the muscle that is this 25-year-old band that I really, really love. And then, of course, I spend a year on tour with the band and I’m just dying to get back in a car by myself and get some peace and quiet and show up to a gig and not haver to answer to anyone.
That formula seems to be working. You have the same original lineup after 25 years. Not a lot of bands can say that.
It’ll be 25 this spring. And we are very lucky. Murry and I were in bands together for a long time, and it took a lot of, I would say trial and error but it was mostly just error, trying different band members. The musical collaboration is important. But I think it takes a backseat to friendships. Just really being able to get along. You know, a quarter-century with these same guys, and I’m out with them right now for two weeks in this bus that’s like a sardine can, and you’re just shoved together in there and in the dressing rooms. You really have to love each other to make it work for that long.
I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your charity work. Specifically, you do a lot with suicide prevention and to help the LGBT community, and it seems like more than ever, those are such an important areas that needs support.
It’s such funny sentence, it doesn’t count as charity unless you talk about it, right? I always feel like anything good I ever do I wish I could do it anonymously, But part of it is it’s good for someone with a platform to come out and talk about this stuff so it inherently has to be me talking about it and not anonymously, It’s funny you should ask that, just last night I was working on a song where, more than I’ve ever done in my writing before, dealt with my suicide attempt (when he was 14). Basically, it should have worked. It was incredibly lucky that I survived it. But I did. So I kind of got this second chance. And even though I spent a lot of years of running and hiding from talking about that in public, the older I get, and now that I have kids that are about that same age, and how hard it is to be an adolescent, I imagine it’s even harder now than when I was a kid.
I agree. And it seems like social media is adding to the pressure a lot of these kids are feeling.
Yeah, and I feel like you’re funneling all of your energy into this little screen. It’s hard. And my wife and I talk about this a lot, ‘I wish the kids didn’t do this’ and I wish they’d…you know But no amount of wishing is going to change the world they’re growing up in, except every single day try to love them and try to do our little part to make it better. Yeah, I think a lot about it. So I wrote this song last night where it was my 14-year-old self talking to myself now. So it was a funny conversation to have. And it’s so hard not to fall into the ole’ traps of just saying, ‘There’s so much to live for’ or whatever, platitude. ‘Cause nobody likes platitudes. They sort of defeat the purpose for which they’re intended. I think the important thing when you are destigmatizing these kind of mental health issues, and the suicide impulse, is to really talk about it frankly and to acknowledge the validity of what the people are feeling when they’re feeling it. Because you can tell them they’re wrong, but that’s not going to help anybody. If you say, ‘I completely understand why you would want to kill yourself. I mean this world is a really hard world to live in, and the human condition is one of despair.’ Then you’re starting from a place you’re respecting each other and having a real conversation.
I just learned that your family is responsible for bringing pro football to Dallas, is that right?
I wrote a piece about this a couple of years ago for Sports Illustrated. My paternal grandfather started the first NFL franchise in Dallas. And was somehow able to completely bankrupt the family in so doing. It was a disaster. And it was two years before the TV contracts came in and no club ever went under again. But he in mid—season had to forfeit the team back to the league and our family, put it this way, I did not grow up wealthy. I could have been Jerry Jones’ kid, and instead was just the son of a frustrated attorney. I’m not complaining. I know a lot of rich people who grew up very miserable.
How many years was that before the Cowboys?
My grandfather’s team was in the ‘50s. 1961 was the second Dallas Texans that went on to become the Kanas City Chiefs. And then in 1970 it was the Dallas Cowboys.
You return to the Urban Lounge and Salt Lake city this Friday.
I love Salt Lake. I feel like it’s kind of an inspiring place There’s just so much going on and there’s so many layers to the community and there’s such a vibrant art scene that comes up, maybe in reaction to some of the more fundamentalist or religious forces at work. I’ve always been intrigued by the town and I’m excited to come back.